Once or twice a week during the winter somebody in Los Angeles starts to feel nausea or flu symptoms and winds up having to be treated at a hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning because the home's heating system was so dirty that it began spewing the highly poisonous gas into the house.
"Because it's so cold right now there seem to be more of them," Dick Friend, a spokesman for Southern California Gas Co., which routinely urges customers through notices in their bills to regularly check their heaters, said last week.
No agency keeps an accurate count of incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning, but Manny Schweid, chief of housing and institutions for the Los Angeles County Health Department, said, "We've had one or two reports per week since the onset of the heating season."
Wall Heaters Cited
The usual culprit is a wall furnace, sometime called a space heater, which is found in apartments and houses built between the 1930s and 1960s. The unit is built into the wall and draws in air from the room where it is located.
If too much lint accumulates in the furnace's burner, it can send soot up the flue. That restricts the movement of carbon monoxide fumes, which are supposed to escape through a vent that leads outside the house or apartment. Instead, the fumes are forced into the room.
Schweid said other types of furnaces--forced-air furnaces, common in newer homes, and floor furnaces, in which heat comes through a grate in the floor--appear to cause fewer carbon monoxide poisoning problems. Gas company officials urge homeowners to routinely check and clean the filter in forced-air systems and to make sure that dirt, lint and children's toys do not restrict the normal venting process of floor furnaces.
External Air Kept Out
The problem of a faulty heater is compounded when, in response to extremely cold weather, families take additional steps to seal off all external air.
"People do the damnedest things," Schweid said. "We had one case where people taped up the windows. You had no air coming in. They were asphyxiated. We couldn't reconstruct whether that was due to the heater not working properly or just the lack of any air."
Problems also can result from residents who tinker with their heaters while trying to light the pilot after having turned it off during warmer months and unintentionally damage the unit, Schweid said.
The worst single incident reported in Southern California this winter occurred Monday in a small home in southeast San Diego, in which 13 adults and children awoke with severe headaches, nausea and vomiting. They were treated in a hyperbaric chamber, whose atmosphere of 100% oxygen allows patients to gradually expel the effects of carbon monoxide. None was seriously hurt.
The day before, six other San Diego County residents were treated for similar carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cold Winter Blamed
A spokesman for San Diego Gas & Electric attributed the cases to the unusually cold winter, noting that San Diego residents are used to milder weather than Los Angeles and may have overcompensated. "A lot of people are using furnaces (who) never use them," he said.
Schweid said he does not think there have been more carbon monoxide poisoning cases this year than most winters.
"Luckily, we don't have much of a problem because people usually realize instantly that they don't feel right, and they call someone," he said.
Friend said the utility recommends annual inspections of wall heaters. Residents who do not want to hire a contractor can ask the gas company for a free inspection, "but we can only handle so many," he said.